A Horse Path

'Obby 'Oss

DevonFor children, galloping about on 'the stick with the 'orses 'ead 'andle..' was a well loved pastime in Victorian and Edwardian times (long before Woolworth's sold young Albert his lion prodder). Towards the end of the 19th century the earliest of velocipedes (bicycle propelled by feet on the ground) was called a hobby horse or dandy charger. But we are reaching much further back in time and into serious community business when we raise the question of the Hobby Horse.

In reviving the Hunting of the Earl of Rone, suppressed in 1837 and revived in 1974, Combe Martin (Devon) has researched its own history and reinvented a powerful celebration. After 160 years of resting an obby oss and company once more take a turn around the village on Ascension Day (now on the late-May Bank Holiday). The cast of characters are the Earl of Rone in mask, with ship's biscuits in a string around his neck; a large hobby horse with mappers ­ snapping jaws (top right - a picture from the BBC's Land Lines series); a live donkey also with biscuit collar, a Fool with besom and a troop of grenadier guards in red coats with (sort of) muskets.

The event runs for four days, ending on the Bank Holiday, when, at eventide, the crowd are led up to Lady's Wood, where a hunt reveals the Earl of Rone. Shots are fired, the Earl is caught and ignominiously made to ride with his face to the donkey's tale. Journeying towards the sea incidents occur, each time volleys are fired, guards are praised, drums are beaten, lamentations take place ­ the Fool raises the Earl from wounds or death. As the sun sets the players and the crowd reach the shore and with a great crescendo things happen in the sea. In the early 19th century 'licence and drunkenness then began' which led a rector to have all the costumes burnt, the ceremony was suppressed in 1837. Read more on the web-site of the Earl of Rone Council.

Scraps of history are intertwined with ancient ritual ­ in 1607 the Earl of Tyrone escaping from Ireland after insurrection was washed ashore here or in France or Spain. Skimmity riding, being made to ride a donkey backwards to the sound of pans being clashed together, is an old form of rough punishment. In Rome, the October horse, drowned each October, wore biscuits to symbolise the end of harvest. And hobby horses and other beasts take centre stage in many ancient customs. The horse mask is played out in the spring not only in a few corners of England but, as Violet Alford found, in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland everywhere flaunting his passion for young women ...

"... that these maskers brought with them fertilising powers to continue life at the moment when life was at its lowest ebb. This is particularly true of the horse, which holds an erotic fascination for women and girls, sometimes also for men. All across Europe the horse must definitely be looked upon as one of the chief bringers of fecundity, human, animal and vegetal.

Always he appears at the dangerous moments of the year, the winter and summer solstice, early spring, May, which is the archaic Beltane and, very oddly Corpus Christi, which 13th century festival allowed ancient processional figures to appear at the new feast. The rites proper to these seasons, excepting the last, have always been carried out, and the horse 'comes out' to assist the ritualists. Sometimes a scene is enacted with him as the principal character miming his own death and revival as a symbol of the year cycle."
Violet Alford - The Hobby Horse and other Animal Masks

In Minehead, there is luck in greeting and paying up to the Hobby Horse who ventures out on May Day. This Somerset town is in part defined for insiders and outsiders by this celebration of the return of spring. Minehead has even customised the calendar - Warning Eve or Show Night is the local name for April 30 when the Sailor's Horse (illustrated by Ed Briant, top left) first ventures out. He dances to his own tune in the streets with drum and melodeon played by the 'sailors' who attend him. He searches out money in the pubs and originally would cheekily sneak into houses too leaving good luck behind him. At 6 o'clock on May morning, with no one to see, the Sailor's Horse bows three times to the sun, he then makes his way around Minehead. Chasing children, seeing off the Dunster Horse and the Town Horse if they emerge, prancing precariously near the waters edge by the harbour; seriously seeking donations and sustenance all the way, he does not rest until after the 3rd of May and visits to nearby Periton and Cher. 

At the same time the equally robust 'Old Hoss' will be busy in Padstow on the north Cornish coast. Black, light on his feet and bold with the ladies, he is accompanied by 'the Teaser' together they rampage, dance and explore the repertoire including the Night Song, Day Song and more.

Over how long have these traditions evolved? The Minehead custom may have grown out of beating the bounds, or repelling Viking attacks, or a shipwreck involving a drowned cow, academics and locals muse and disagree. Like so much in our surroundings some things have persisted for a very long time, clinging on through moments of vulnerability. In Padstow the story goes that with hardly a man left to the village after the Great War the women took over "And if we hadn't carried un, the police'd have forbidden un ever to come out again. So we carried un".Celebration is one potent way of passing on the knowledge of a place (one day's festival means 364 days rehearsal they say) and being particular does not make it parochial. Hobby horses (and other beasts) are active from Portugal to Greece, Norway to Romania, India too. Compare too the Lion Dance at Chinese New Year where generations of revelry across thousands of miles have preceded the celebrations in Soho and Manchester. When you look below the surface, it is exciting to see just how connected we are to the world and yet how particular a locality reveals itself to be.

In Oxfordshire a brand new gathering is taking root. The Banbury Hobby Horse Festival is being built to honour a nursery rhyme, to reinforce the identity of the place. Always a three-day event ending on the first Sunday in July, Banbury will welcome many beasts to its streets, to perform and dance, to race, to joust, to be admired. Accounts of the first three years suggest that there will be a lot of horsing about. Traditions have to start sometime and if they have a good reason for being in a place, whether legend or geology, they may persist and change for a thousand years.

Find out what hobby horses you can see around the country ...

Horses ... alive and kicking